The tech industry is going through a shift in work culture, and many Product Managers find themselves in permanently remote or hybrid work environments. Though hybrid work offers many exciting new possibilities, it also introduces new challenges. Strengthening soft skills can help you minimize these challenges and make your transition to hybrid as smooth as possible.
The good news is that Product Managers tend to already have a strong foundation of soft skills given how people-centric the position is, and all that’s left is to apply them to a hybrid context.
Product Management has always required soft skills; arguably, what distinguishes a good PM from a great PM isn’t technical knowledge, but their people skills. We intuitively know that soft skills are important, especially in remote or hybrid settings. Who doesn’t appreciate that team member who brightens up the room, or a colleague who knows how to listen? But when focusing on professional development, the emphasis is often on hard skills over soft ones.
This is a grave oversight, especially given studies showing that soft skills drive business outcomes. To take full advantage of the benefits of soft skills, it’s time to 1) create a list soft skills we need to strengthen and 2) practice those soft skills, in the same way we would when learning hard skills like coding or data analysis.
So how do we identify which soft skills to work on? And how do we practice? Soft skill development will vary from person to person, but looking at the common challenges of hybrid work is a great place to start.
Challenge #1: The Back-And-Forth
Soft skills start with self. If you’re new to hybrid work, it’s unlikely you’ll know how to do it perfectly right off the bat. Expect to encounter an adjustment period, and take moments of friction in your workflow as an opportunity for self-learning.
Hybrid comes with unique challenges. Shifting between remote and in-person work can be jarring if you’re not used to it, and the back-and-forth can disrupt your workflow. Haphazardly distributed in-person vs at-home days are another problem, but planning hybrid distribution in alignment with tasks to be done takes some work. Building soft skills through self-focus can help you manage the back-and-forth between the physical and digital workplace.
The first step in optimizing your hybrid workflow is to pay attention.
As you move through different work contexts, take note of your emotions and energy level. Perhaps you notice you struggle to productively remote work after a day of working in the office, or benefit from working half the day in-person and half at home.
Make a list of processes and repeating tasks you carry out on a regular basis and experiment, trying out each one in both remote and in-person environments. Also, take note of the social interactions and meetings you have. Are there certain colleagues or stakeholders who you prefer talking with virtually vs in-person? Do certain types of meetings work better for you in one context or the other? What is your preferred hybrid communication style?
You may or may not have full control over communication channels and hybrid structure, but it’s important to be equipped with knowledge of what works best for you for those instances where you do have influence; the more you pay attention to how situations and interactions impact your emotional state, the more you can design your environment to work in your favor.
You might also be interested in: Characteristics of Exceptional Product Managers
Once you’re aware of your needs and responses to hybrid work, it’s time to implement actions to meet those needs.
These actions can be something as simple as moving your WFH station to be in front of the window, or setting a reminder on your phone so you remember to prepare lunch the night before an in-office workday.
This is where other soft skills like organization and time management come into play. Consider creating a weekly or daily schedule taking into account the days you’ll be in vs out of office. Sort your to-do list into in-person vs remote tasks, and energy required to complete. Once this is done, schedule top priority tasks during the most optimal time and context, and then schedule secondary priority tasks around them (optimizing for secondary tasks as well, where possible).
For example, if video calls are particularly draining for you, and you have highest energy levels in the morning, plan your remote calls in the morning whenever possible. Or, if in-person brainstorms energize you, organize your brainstorms so they occur on in-person days and at a typically low-energy time.
Product Managers are highly driven, which is an excellent attribute when it comes to effective problem-solving, but can backfire when they try to take on too much or hold overly high standards for themselves.
There will be hiccups in the transition to hybrid, and even the best-planned schedules will go awry. Sometimes you won’t be able to implement optimizing actions, and you’ll struggle with the challenges of hybrid. Accept that your bandwidth will shrink and expand and don’t be hard on yourself on less productive days.
As long as you give yourself patience and understanding, keep paying attention to your emotional and energetic state, and implement self-management tools, productivity will follow.
Challenge #2: Hybrid Teams
With some people at home, some people remote, and some people both, team alignment becomes more difficult. So what soft skills can help with this?
Emotional intelligence requires both internal and external awareness. It’s a broad skill that encompasses other soft skills like empathy and social influence. Strong emotional intelligence is a superpower: you can use it to navigate difficult emotional and social environments. Instead of getting pushed under in the emotional turmoil, you’ll be able to float above the surface and lead the way out in a way that’s beneficial for the team and the product.
Empathy in particular is an aspect of emotional intelligence that has become essential over the last couple of years. During quarantine, everyone adjusted to new restrictions in various ways and was able to give others grace and understanding during the transition given that we were all experiencing the same global phenomenon.
We found people had varied capacities for working at home, influenced in part by personality and environment. An extrovert experiences WFH differently than an introvert, as does a parent compared to someone who lives alone.
Our common experience of the pandemic is now splintering, which means it’s time to intentionally keep practicing the empathy that came so naturally when we were all in the same boat.
Think about how your hybrid team is structured. Are there fully remote or fully in-person individuals? Is everyone expected to be hybrid? And does everyone get a choice in their situation? Remember that each of these setups has distinct challenges and advantages that team members might value differently.
Ask your team members if they prefer remote, hybrid, or in-person work, and why. Regardless of your power to change their situation, this line of questioning will help you understand where your team is coming from and what their struggles are. Since most of us have now worked both in-person and remote, we can draw from those experiences to empathize with a team member who is having an off moment.
And since it’s so difficult to tell how someone is doing through the screen, having a heightened sense of empathy and understanding your team members’ pain points with different kinds of work will help you pick up on more subtle cues that can be easily lost in a hybrid context.
If you display a continued effort of empathy, team members feel supported and understood. As a result, they’ll be more likely to trust you, feel valued, and move in the direction you ask them to.
And since Product Managers are CEOs of influencing without authority, emotional intelligence really is one of the strongest tools in your arsenal. It’s all well and fine to understand customer needs and company vision, but if you need to be able to convince others to walk with you.
Communication issues are an oft-cited challenge for remote workers, and hybrid communication isn’t any simpler. The same issues of remote communication exist, but with an added layer of in-person contact.
Especially if your team is mixed remote/in-person, you’ll have to make an effort to ensure that communications are centralized so that all team members can find them regardless of presential status. Strategize with your team the best way for all members to stay on the same page and capture in-person communication so that remote team members aren’t left out.
Schedule catch-ups to resynchronize after a period of asynchronous communication and clarify points that were lost. If your entire team is hybrid, try to schedule regular meetings or activities in person so everyone can reconnect.
Another incredible opportunity of hybrid work is the increased ability to have international teams. If you find yourself working with team members who are spread out in different geographical areas, there are a couple more communication hiccups to look out for. Time difference is an obvious one, but cultural differences can also create gaps in communication style. If hybrid or remote work does open your team up to accept international team members, make sure to put in a little more effort to include them in communications, understand how their communication style might differ from yours, and incorporate their different viewpoints.
Challenge #3: Uncertainty
Hybrid work, for most of us, is new. And with newness comes uncertainty. There’s no guidebook telling us the right way to do hybrid work at such a mass scale, so we’re all making it up as we go along. But the silver lining is that because there are no rules, we have an opportunity to shape the future of hybrid work culture. And again, soft skills are how we get there.
The World Economic Forum’s 2020 Future of Jobs Report lists innovation as one of the most-demanded emerging skills. And the good news is, everyone can bring elements of innovation to their role.
Intrapreneurs—people who use an entrepreneurial mindset to enact change within a company—are increasingly valuable assets to their companies in the face of rapid cultural and technological changes. And on a strategic level, developing this skill makes you harder to replace as an employee. Many professions will be replaced by or augmented with AI in the future, but innovation is one skill that technology hasn’t been able to mimic.
Keep an eye out for opportunities to implement new work norms and new ways to connect and share ideas in a hybrid workplace. Listen to your team members and colleagues: what are they struggling with? Is this a company-wide issue? And what are possible solutions? If you approach hybrid with a curious and problem-solving mindset, every work interaction is an opportunity to learn something new and find places where innovative solutions are needed.
To implement innovative new ideas, it’s necessary to be not just a Product Leader, but a leader within your company. Leadership is a complex skill that requires mastery of many other soft skills; you have to understand others in order to influence them, and you have to understand yourself to know your weak points and avoid acting out of personal bias.
Leadership also requires communication. In a hybrid workplace, how will you reach all of the people who need to hear you? How will you change your message based on your colleague’s work context?
To practice hybrid leadership, make an effort to stay in contact with your regular team and check in often. But don’t stop there. Take note of people you see infrequently and figure out if there’s a way you can set aside time each week to foster connections with people not directly in your team. Discover the motivations of your colleagues, if they’d be on board with the changes you’d like to implement, and what their sphere of influence is.
If you’re able to lead through the uncertainty to a place of stability, this will build the foundation for hybrid workplace norms moving forward. You’ll have a stronger influence and understanding of the state of your company and colleagues, which will open the door for you to lead future initiatives and guide your team forward as the world inevitably keeps changing.